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The 'More So' Minority

Knoxville's Jewish community is getting new attention from its Christian neighbors

by Wendy Lowe Besmann

Four days to Passover and I'm working through a bad case of holiday panic. My body cranks out leg lifts in an exercise class while two or three brain compartments independently obsess over the menu for seder. ("Mom's doing matzoh ball soup, Judy made chopped liver, Diane's got carrot tsimmes.... We still need a green vegetable. I have to round up three more chairs.")

Seder--in case you didn't catch the Rugrats Passover Special on TV--is an elaborate Jewish service held around the dinner table at the start of this major spring holiday, also known as the Feast of Freedom. ("I can't believe Kroger is charging six bucks for a lousy jar of gefilte fish.") Perhaps the most widely celebrated ritual in the Hebrew calendar, it commemorates the Exodus from Egypt with songs, prayer, deep symbolism, children's games, four cups of wine, and enough high-cholesterol food to neutralize a dozen exercise classes. The Hebrew word means "order," which refers to the 15-part structure of rituals laid down centuries ago to anchor an often exuberant gathering of family and friends. ("Susan's brisket, my roast chicken, chocolate nut cake, macaroons ... need to check the tablecloth for wine stains from last year.")

Maybe I've started to mumble out loud, because during the cool-down period a lady on the next mat squirms around to look at me.

"Are you Jewish?" she asks politely. "We're doing a seder at the Unitarian Church and I don't know where to find kosher wine. Plus I'm in charge of an entree. Do you think chicken rolled in chopped pecans is Pesachdik?"

Pesach is the Hebrew word for Passover. You pronounce the "ch" with a kind of ragged, gargling huh-sound, as if you were exhaling inside Darth Vader's helmet. Something Pesachdik is fit to eat on Passover, which means it contains no grains or leavens except ground-up versions of matzoh, the crunchy, rather tasteless cracker that replaces bread, rice and legumes in our diet for the eight days of the festival.

Just a few days earlier, my husband, Ted, was invited to speak about Passover at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. As any good Bible student knows, the Last Supper was a Passover seder. It might have been quite similar to our modern version, minus chopped liver and matzoh ball soup.

Until recently, the only Jewish holiday that got much outside attention was Hanukkah, a rather minor celebration boosted by its proximity to Christmas. Now more and more churches are asking local Jews to help them understand Passover rituals. Rabbi Howard Simon of Temple Beth El put on a full seder down at John XXIII this year. It was "a marvelous sharing experience," he says.

I'm sniffing a trend. Why is Christian Knoxville suddenly so curious about Jewishness? For 135 years, the Jews in this town have been a tiny, middle-class minority which practiced a cycle of ancient traditions while trying not to look too different.

"We're just like everyone else in Knoxville, only more so," quips Knoxville native Barbara Bernstein, a longtime civic volunteer whose grandfather was the first full-time rabbi in the city more than a century ago.

Still, the neighbors seem remarkably intrigued by that little bit more so.

"Especially in the South, there's an enormous interest in Jewish origins," says Rabbi Arthur Weiner of Heska Amuna Synagogue, who gets invited to speak with church groups 20 or 30 times a year. "Christians are beginning to look at their own roots, wanting to understand Judaism as it existed at the time of Jesus. They seem to love the symbolism. They love knowing that Jews face east to pray because it's the direction of Jerusalem. Or the fact that we put a stone on the grave when we visit, in order to show the dead are being remembered."

"At least once a day, somebody calls up with a question about Judaism," puts in Marian Jay, office administrator for Heska Amuna. "Most are good Christians who came across something while reading their Bibles, but you also get your wackos--you know, like 'Just a minute, I'm gonna fax you something about the Messiah.' One guy wanted me to check our gift shop for a copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls"--possibly the Jewish equivalent of asking for Prince Albert in a can.

Conrad Koller, executive director of Arnstein Jewish Community Center and Knoxville Jewish Federation, says he frequently answers queries about our relationship with Israel, "but I've also been asked when the next sacrifice is being held" Just for the record, burnt offerings stopped about 1,900 years ago.

Many questioners wonder about the strong sense of family and community that seems to bind Jews together, despite a propensity to argue about practically everything. (Classic Jewish Joke number one: President Dwight D. Eisenhower is talking to Israel's then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. "Listen, do you think it's easy being president of 170 million people?" Ben Gurion shrugs. "You call that hard? I'm prime minister of two million prime ministers!")

"We're monotheistic, not monolithic," says Rabbi Simon. His congregation is the Reform Jewish Temple Beth El, whose building stands on the leafy Church Row section of Kingston Pike. My family belongs to Heska Amuna Synagogue, the Conservative congregation at the other end of Church Row (led by Arthur Weiner, who is leaving this summer for a pulpit in New Jersey).

Unlike the various sects of Christianity, "Temple" and "Synagogue" Jews mainly differ on matters of practice, not doctrine. Halacha, the ancient system of Jewish law that governs both ethical and ritual conduct, is generally viewed by the Conservative movement as binding on a Jew's behavior, yet open to modern interpretation. The Reform movement considers halacha more of a guideline to be applied according to common sense. The strictest constructionists are Orthodox Jews, who cleave to the most traditional practices. But those few Orthodox willing to live in an isolated spot like Knoxville make do with Heska Amuna.

In reality, its gets even fuzzier. For example, kashrut, the system of Jewish dietary laws, is a key tenet of the Conservative movement and is strictly observed in the synagogue's kitchen. Yet only a few dozen Heska Amuna families maintain kashrut at home, so they coordinate a regular purchase of kosher meat from a butcher in Atlanta. The weekly Sabbath services of both congregations actually follow the same structure, carved out centuries ago. Yet a visitor to Temple Beth El's Friday evening service will recognize more surface elements in common with church worship--an organ, a choir, a liturgy of about 90 minutes with a lot of prayers in English.

Those who come to Heska Amuna's Saturday morning Shabbat services find a more exotic experience. Each man and some of the women wear a small head covering known as a kipah and the fringed prayer shawl called a tallit. Most of the service is chanted according to traditional melodies in Hebrew. This davvening (recitation of prayers) is accomplished by some with a traditional back and forth swaying motion that seems to be practiced by each to his own internal tempo.

You also can't help noticing that the services are long--they last all morning and are therefore conducted with surprising informality. People feel free to wander in and out during various parts of the service and hold whispered conversations in the pews. Non-Jews invited to one of Heska Amuna's Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies (the ritual coming-of-age for a 13-year-old boy or girl) are often cued by considerate Jewish friends to arrive an hour after the start of services, just as many congregants do.

Temple Beth El is among the oldest Jewish congregations in the Southeast, founded during the Civil War when the death of Confederate soldier Joseph Schwab spurred a handful of German Jewish merchants to purchase land for a burial ground. This is the way most American Jewish communities began--as a mutual aid society to care for the sick, feed the indigent, and bury the dead. Shortly thereafter, Knoxville's Hebrew Benevolent Society began to hold worship services, under the lay ministry of a merchant named Julius Ochs. He moved away to help his son Adolph run the Chattanooga Times. Of course, Adolph eventually bought another struggling paper, The New York Times, and founded a publishing dynasty. Later, when the renamed Temple Beth El bought its first building on Vine Street, he paid for the ark that held its Torah, the sacred handwritten scrolls of the Bible.

Heska Amuna was started in the 1890s by Eastern Europeans who practiced more traditional ways. The name of the synagogue is actually a grammatical error made by its immigrant founding fathers. They may have been unsure how to transliterate the Hebrew words Chazkei Emunah or "strongholders of the faith" into the Roman alphabet when they applied to the state for a charter. Once made legal, however, the name Heska Amuna stuck.

During the first half of the century, small Jewish merchants gradually became a fixture on the downtown scene. Mary Lippner's father and uncle ran a butcher shop on Market Square--one side for kosher meat, one side for the Gentiles. A number of Jews ran small clothing or food businesses in the surrounding counties, so Barbara Bernstein's grandfather had to serve as the circuit-riding mohel, traveling around to perform the ritual circumcision of eight-day-old male infants. Endorsement letters from local Christian doctors certified that he did this surgery with "Haste and Care, resulting well."

Though Max Arnstein had a fancy department store on the corner of Market and Union, it wasn't a wealthy community. In the late '20s, Rabbi A. J. Robinson supplemented his meager pay by running a used plumbing supplies store in what is now the Old City (his son Mitchell later turned it into Modern Supply, the wholesale bath and kitchen distributor with branches in four East Tennessee cities). It was a small, companionable community of several hundred, most of whom were related to each other. Barbara Bernstein's father, Ben Winick, was among the first to earn a law degree. He once covered the Scopes trial as a stringer for a Yiddish daily newspaper, writing back to his future wife, "From the look of things, this trial is going down in history."

His personal trajectory was the shape of things to come. Courtesy of growing affluence and the G.I. Bill, the sons of Knoxville Jewish retailers went off to college and came home professional. Education has always been a top priority among the Jews. Heska Amuna built its educational wing before its sanctuary, and Jewish kids attend after-school Hebrew classes several times a week from the elementary grades to the teens.

Today, the vast majority of Knoxville Jewish households contain doctors, lawyers, engineers, middle managers--a cross-section of American meritocracy. The last remaining downtown Jewish businesses are Harold's Deli on Gay Street, the nearby Abrams' Mill Agent store, and Nathan Diftler's jewelry store in the bottom floor of the old Arnstein Building.

The expansion of TVA, the Oak Ridge labs and the university brought even more Jewish professionals to Knoxville, bringing the population up to the low thousands. At least two-thirds weren't born here.

"People used to move to the area because they had a relative here," says Mary Linda Schwarzbart, whose grandfather sold dry goods in Mechanicsville from the '20s to the '60s. "Now the educational level is much higher and they come to Knoxville for jobs. It changes how the community needs to function. Jewish friends end up creating their own extended families because sharing life-cycle celebrations is so important to us."

"You get a lot of pushes and pulls for your volunteer time, for your financial support, for your attendance," says Rody Cohen, director of the Kids on the Block program for Child and Family Services. She serves on the Knoxville Jewish Federation's social services committee, which oversees the needs of the Jewish aged or distressed. With her husband, Neil, a UT law professor, she has also organized a group of a dozen Jewish couples to serve meals at the Volunteer Ministry once a month.

In fact, the roster of Jewish boards and committees in this town underlines the old adage that the best way to get something done is to ask a busy person. You see names such as Mary Beth Leibowitz, the Knox County Criminal Court judge; Marty Iroff, the drug and violence prevention specialist for Knox County elementary schools; Janice Woycik, who runs the employee assistance programs for UT Medical Center; and Barb Levin, the Madisonville doctor who has just been named national rural health provider of the year.

"I've had people ask me why Jews are so active for causes such as HIV research," says Janet Gurwitch, the assistant district attorney who heads the domestic violence unit. "I think it's because we tend to be participatory rather than passive. We come from a community that organizes to get things done." Tikkun Olam--the repair or healing of the world--is the most basic tenet of the covenant with God, points out Rabbi Weiner. "The Jew's mission is to make the world a better place." We don't all do it, but it's definitely part of the programming.

For a group with so many prominent professionals, the Knoxville Jewish community is remarkably quiet in the public forum.

"We wield a considerable amount of influence for our small numbers, but it's always done very quietly," says Arnold Schwarzbart, a nationally known Judaic artist who moved here as a child after his parents survived the Holocaust. When something burns our communal toast--like the school board scheduling makeup days on Saturday--the community relations committee tends to make a discreet phone call or two. "There's a certain feeling of not wanting to rock the boat. It's just not the way people do things here."

At times, however, the audacity known as chutzpah will bubble up. Downtown lawyer Bernie Bernstein made the AP wire in the late '70s when he chained a mobile sign protesting Soviet anti-Jewish policies to the front of the City-County Building.

Still, the social and political frictions that plague other Jewish communities are mostly absent here. Jews get along well though uneventfully with the African-American community and now maintain genial ties to the local Palestine Ramallah Club. The small Palestinian community holds an annual friendship picnic with Oak Ridge and Knoxville Israelis. They also joined forces with the Knoxville Jewish Federation to sponsor a Concert for Peace at Jubilee Community Arts. Jim Harb of the Ramallah Club remembers that one rousing set by an Arab band stirred a Palestinian woman to start dancing. She grabbed the hand of the Jewish woman next to her and soon a snaking line of dancers was going up the aisle. "It was a transformative moment," he says simply.

There's a vintage joke about the autumn High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when so many Jews show up for services that tickets are usually sold to ensure that infrequent attendees pull their financial weight. A man shows up at synagogue but doesn't have a ticket. The usher doesn't want to let him in. "But I have to deliver a vital message to Mr. Rosenberg who's inside," the man pleads. "It's a matter of life and death!" "Okay, go in," says the usher. "But don't let me catch you praying!""

In reality, those who can't afford tickets are always included, but the joke represents a kind of fond pragmatism about spiritual matters. "It's like when I'm doing my pots, about 10 percent of the work is throwing pottery and the rest is cleanup and glazing," says Arnold Schwarzbart. "In Knoxville, being a committed Jew has more to do with the welfare of the community and the maintenance of that welfare than religious fervor."

That helps to explain why a few hundred other Knoxvillians of Jewish origin may never join any congregation but keep a strong sense of identification with the group.

"When there's a threat to the Jewish people, unaffiliated Jews come out of the woodwork," says UT microbiology professor Jeff Becker, one of about 65 Jewish faculty members who formed a loose coalition to respond to an anti-Semitic episode on campus several years ago. Some of these faculty got involved in creating a chair of Judaic studies, currently filled by Professor Gilya Gerda Schmidt and partially funded by the Knoxville Jewish community.

Even without a cause or crisis, the urge to hang together runs deep. Jewishness is not a religion nor even ethnicity, but rather a "peoplehood." Whether we're drawn into this circle by birth, marriage or choice, it's a complex, multidimensional way of belonging that affects every aspect of life, from humor and food to sex and social justice. (Classic Jewish Joke number three: An American banker who was Jewish by birth converted to Christianity. One day he was walking with a friend who was a hunchback. They passed a synagogue. "You know, I used to be a Jew," commented the banker. "What a coincidence," replied his friend. "I used to be a hunchback.")

Very few Jews in America actually convert to Christianity, but their ranks are being dramatically altered by intermarriage. Only a generation ago, an observant Jewish family might actually observe the formal mourning period--known as "sitting Shiva"--for a family member who married out of the faith. Yet a recent population study estimated that more than 50 percent of all first-time Jewish marriages are to non-Jews. Some of this reflects a loosening of attitudes, but another cause is low numbers. Here in Knoxville, Jewish teenagers socialize together in various youth groups but tend not to date each other.

"It's too small a pool," sighs Nancy Becker, education director of Heska Amuna. "They grow up alongside each other, so they're more like brothers and sisters." Intermarriage has also created an influx of converts, known as "Jews by choice," who tend to be some of the most involved members of temple and synagogue.

Paradoxically, many born Jews who weren't part of formal congregations in their previous places of residence join temple or synagogue after moving to Knoxville. They crave Jewish culture and also realize that this a church-going town, where membership in a house of worship is considered the respectable thing to do. "Especially if you have children, they have to belong to something," Barbara Bernstein points out.

This point was brought home to me four years ago, when our family home burned to the ground. My neighbor Susan Kaplan--who's married to a Jew and cooks the aforementioned brisket every year for our seder--quickly called Marian Jay, who knows how to spread news with lightning speed through an informal calling chain. Susan and my friend Ellen Kern--who is married to a non-Jew but is highly involved in synagogue life--mobilized teams of Jewish community members for a kitchen shower in which our friends literally crammed somebody's living room full of donated household goods.

The committee charged with resettling several dozen Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union scrounged through its warehouse to loan me temporary furniture. Meanwhile, Jews I didn't even know sent me checks for $18. Known as "giving chai," such cash donations are customarily made in multiples of $18 because in the Hebrew mystic numerology system, 18 corresponds to the letters which spell chai, or life.

The Arnstein Jewish Community Center building on Deane Hill Drive, which looks like an aging brick elementary school, is the overworked forum where synagogue, temple, and unaffiliated Jews come together.

"We're the most visible institution in town because so many non-Jews use the preschool, the pool, the tennis courts and the summer day camp," observes its current president Karen Robinson. "And when Jewish people are thinking about moving to town, this is usually the first place they visit."

Her board is determined to spruce up the place, but it wages an uphill battle against cranky plumbing, the vicissitudes of messy toddlers and a constant parade of community. The cluttered office upstairs doubles as the headquarters of the Knoxville Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization which provides a variety of social services as well as being a kind of mini-United Way to raise and distribute funds to Jewish agencies here and in Israel.

I'm standing outside the AJCC on a warm Sunday in early May, so gorgeous that people have nearly stopped kvetching about what a lousy spring it's been. School buses decorated with blue and white Israeli flags are bringing Sunday school children to the Jerusalem 3000 festival, a carnival to celebrate three millennia of King David's golden city.

The kids on the bus are belting out a Jewish summer camp standard with hand motions that gradually fast-forward into chaos: Do-veed, Melech Yisrael, Chai, Chai, V' Ka Yom ("David, King of Israel, lives, lives today"). They spill out like unruly puppies into a broad island of grass and big trees surrounded by the standard West Knoxville flock of minivans.

The Sunday school kids are claimed by their parents, fueled with strips of 25-cent tickets, then turned loose on the homemade ring toss and beanbag games, the inflatable moon walk, the arts and crafts tent, and a giant WJXB bumblebee, sweltering graciously in his fuzzy stripes. It looks like any other community fair, but I know the hot dogs are definitely kosher, and the ladies selling those homemade cabbage-potato rolls are some of several dozen immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union to be resettled here with the help of Knoxville Jews.

I wave to Josh Gettinger, the family practitioner who now serves as our local mohel and also teaches kids to read in Hebrew from the Torah. He's eating a plate of goodies under a sun canopy lent by Rose Mortuary, the local funeral home that buries all the Jewish dead. There they are, just a couple of the everyday elements that bind a tiny minority together from the cradle to the grave.

One final Jewish story: Heaven, say the sages, is like a table spread with all the most delicious foods in the universe. Everyone sits around the table, but their arms don't bend at the elbow, so none can reach his or her own mouths. Hell, add the sages, is also like a table spread with delicious foods, crowded with people whose arms don't bend at the elbow. What's the difference between the two? In heaven, people feed each other.